Labor of Childbirth and of the Fields

Ultimately, in her work Laboring Women (2004), Jennifer Morgan accomplishes one of her main goals of debunking previous misconceptions in the historical narrative of Atlantic slavery that African men were more prominent and more desirable for labor than African women. Stating in her epilogue that “On the most reductive level, this study has illustrated simply that African women were there,”Morgan constructs a history of the Atlantic world that brings women to the forefront of early American slavery through, fundamentally, their abilities to reproduce and perform equal labor to men.

Before delving into the stronger points of Morgan’s book, I would first wish to point out one crucial aspect of enslaved African women’s lives in relation to reproduction that I found missing from Morgan’s narrative: the prevalent sexual exploitation of female slaves by their white owners. In her fifth chapter, Morgan states that “the proximity of white owners and enslaved women cleared the way for white men to more easily identify black women as potential sexual outlets for themselves.” Additionally, Morgan had previously discussed in chapter three Virginia’s 1662 law that slave women’s children, despite the status of the father, would remain slaves. Neither of these points, despite her attention to the unique experience of women as child-bearers or mothers, gets much attention at all. A conversation on this topic would have aided Morgan’s book enormously, as it would have enhanced discussion on her point on the difficulty of motherhood as a slave (particularly if a child was half white) as well as her point on slavery’s contradiction (as slaveowners consistently exploited their “property”sexually and had children by them).

However, perhaps one of the most illuminating and persuasive points of Morgan’s argument is her discussion of women as central characters in the formation of early conceptions of racial difference. Using early popularized travel narratives as her key primary sources for her opening chapter, Morgan powerfully illuminates the centrality of African and Native American women’s physical and sexual characteristics in the creation of otherness, an otherness which came to be applied to men as well in the justification for racialized slavery in the Americas. Morgan discusses the combined popular topics of pregnancy, nakedness, sexual allure, and monstrosity in this literature to bring readers back to the essential contradiction faced by slaveowners of degrading human beings to the status of chattel. Morgan brings readers back to this contradiction throughout her narrative, importantly explaining different laws and regulations put in place by slaveowners to prevent and discourage their both rational and emotional property from running away.

While I personally found Morgan’s subsequent chapters to be perhaps too hypothetical and not as strongly centered around her focus of African women’s reproductive abilities as I would have liked, she nonetheless gives convincing and essential insight into the demographics of early American slavery, particularly for the Carolinas and Barbados. Slaveowners, as businessmen, kept careful records about their slaves, and Morgan uses these records extensively to show the numbers of male and female slaves brought into the English colonies on slave ships, how many male and female slaves were owned by different slaveowners, and how many male and female slaves were planned on being distributed as property as inheritance upon the death of a slaveowner. Through these sources, Morgan was able to admirably break into the largely-unchartered territory of historical study on enslaved women, showing  that African women, because of their potential for increasing profit through their reproductive ability while simultaneously providing almost equal free labor to men, were both highly valued as property and were as numerous as male slaves.

 

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3 thoughts on “Labor of Childbirth and of the Fields

  1. Hi Michelle, great post! I especially like your discussion of the imagery of African and indigenous bodies. I’m interested in your critique of the lack of analysis of the sexual exploitation of (or sexual violence against) black women. Morgan’s focus is on the reproductive as well as productive labor of women. Is sexual exploitation implicit in “reproduction”?

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  2. I would argue that the aftermath of sexual exploitation and violence relates closely to issues of reproduction for many reasons. As Morgan herself discusses, many slave women feared bringing a child into the world of slavery ; if sexually violated by her owner or another white man, that fear became even more real.
    Additionally, sexual violence has long-lasting repercussions on a person’s mind as well as body (besides the possibility of childbirth). Sexual abuse was accompanied by other forms of violence as well in many cases, and slave women were expected to carry on with their lives, meaning their physical field or domestic labors, after such incidents. Sexual violence against slave women was a very prevalent and visible thing that happened during this time, and many women had children by their masters. Furthermore, white males exploiting slave women who gave birth to mixed-race children helped introduce new categories of racial classification (e.g. the term mulatto) to the Americas. So, while I wouldn’t say that the sexual exploitation itself is implicit in the topic of reproduction, I definitely believe that the consequences of this sexual exploitation and violence relates directly to slave women and their reproductive abilities. While Morgan touched on these issues very briefly, I would argue that because of sexual exploitation’s significance to the experiences of slave women, and because it relates directly to issues of reproduction, a longer discussion on the topic of sexual exploitation would have connected many of Morgan’s other points together effectively.

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  3. Yes! It also means that slaveholders had a real financial stake in the reproductive capacities of enslaved women, and rape had the potential to facilitate their enrichment.

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